When we hear the term “robot,” we think of a machine that is programmed by a human and instructed by a computer, to carry out primarily physical tasks. General Motors introduced this basic type of robot into its Detroit assembly line in 1961 and, since then, robots have been critical to improving productivity and increasing scale. However, today’s shift to automation and digital labor is driven by a more advanced kind of “virtual robot” — software that can execute tasks that would previously require both a human and a computer.
The nascent but growing class of software that automates the clerical tasks in a business is called robotic process automation (RPA). RPA tools do not infiltrate the IT system, but rather sit at the presentation layer, following instructions to perform highly standardized and repeatable tasks such as administrative activities like accounts payable, transaction processing or order entry. Like a player piano, this class of RPA can effectively do what a human is trained to do: complete a basic task autonomously within well-defined parameters.
By tasking robots with the unskilled, mundane and dangerous work, human employees are freed up to do meaningful and valuable thinking including inventing, evolving and managing new innovations. However, we don’t see these technologies causing catastrophic global unemployment. After all, how many college graduates are clamoring to process insurance claims? Sit on IT help desks? Input data into payroll systems? Manage customer orders? These jobs are ideally suited for robots.
It is important to note that basic Class One RPA, which executes tasks exactly as instructed, is not a “cognitive” technology. Cognitive technologies are a collection of machine intelligence technologies designed to interact, reason and learn in a way that is similar to humans. While RPA has already had a major impact on the business services industry, we are poised to see a truly transformative shift in the economy and the larger society as it integrates with a new class of cognitive technologies. That’s happening now. Recently, some RPA platforms have begun to incorporate cognitive technologies to make robots smarter, more intuitive and more useful in a wider range of business applications.
Cognitive technologies have already proven expert at doing manual, routine, time-intensive and low-value tasks — tasks that form the underbelly of many organizations — better, faster and more cheaply than humans. Unlike RPA, however, cognitive technologies are increasingly capable of doing any task that involves accessing a source of knowledge and reasoning through a hypothesis to answer a question. From performing surgery to complex financial forecasting, these are the types of top-level — and even C-level — jobs which many once deemed “safe” from automation.
At the same time, the rise of the robots does not doom human employees. In fact, future jobs will be the most human — the jobs computers can’t do. The McKinsey Global Institute reports that careers centered on human interaction — doctors and teachers, for example — have become some of the fastest growing employment categories, increasing by 4.8 million from 2001 to 2009.
How can CEOs prepare their organizations for a closer relationship with technology and machines? Here are some key action steps to get an organization and workforce ready for the advent of digital labor:
The pace of innovation in digital labor is accelerating exponentially. Today, robots are writing reports, advising on medical treatments, providing investment guidance and detecting cyber breaches. Tomorrow, they might be developing business strategy, making operating decisions or spinning off their own companies. In most cases, digital labor offers complementary assistance to human workers. In fact, future jobs will be the most human — the jobs computers can’t do. In short, we will always need human labor and expertise to get the most from the efficiencies of digital labor.
Cliff Justice is a principal in Innovation & Enterprise solutions at the Houston office of KPMG.